Milner-Zuckerberg Prizes for Mathematics

At the Hollywood-style awards ceremony last night for $3 million string theory and biomedical research prizes, it was announced that Yuri Milner and Mark Zuckerberg will now start funding something similar in mathematics, called the Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics. According to the New York Times:

Yuri Milner, the Russian entrepreneur, philanthropist and self-described “failed physicist” who made a splash two years ago when he began handing out lavish cash awards to scientists, announced Thursday that he was expanding the universe of his largess again: This time, he will begin handing out $3 million awards to mathematicians…

For the new math award, Mr. Milner and Mr. Zuckerberg, the co-sponsor of the math prize, will decide who gets the money, in consultation with experts. Mr. Milner declined to say how many mathematicians would be chosen, but there could be quite a number of windfalls in store: for the physics price, there were nine inaugural winners, and for the life sciences prize, there were 11.

I’ve written extensively about the “Fundamental Physics Prize” and what I see as the worst problem with it (heavily rewarding and propping up a failed research program). While many physicists are privately unhappy about this prize and its effects, few prominent ones are willing to speak publicly with their name attached, since this kind of mouthing-off could turn out to be personally extremely expensive. Ian Sample at the Guardian has a story today, which quotes a “prominent physicist who did not wish to be named”:

One prominent physicist who did not wish to be named said the huge sums of money could be used better: “The great philanthropists of the 19th and 20th centuries, like the Rockefellers and the Carnegies, did not create prizes – they created universities and research institutes that have enabled thousands of scientists to make great breakthroughs over the succeeding decades.

“By contrast, giving a prize has a negligible effect on the progress of science. A few already well-recognised people get enriched, but there is little value added in terms of the progress of science compared to the multiplier effect of creating new institutions for scientific research.”

The Guardian does quote one critic by name, but it’s just the usual one.

The physics prize has turned out to be extremely narrowly targeted at one particular subfield of physics, and from what little I know of the life sciences, the prizes in that area seem to be also narrowly targeted (US biomedical research aimed at curing diseases that most afflict those in the developed world). I’m highly ignorant about life sciences research, but it seems striking that the 6 $3 million winners in this field were all men.

I have no idea how Milner and Zuckerberg will go about choosing the $3 million winners in mathematics, and whether this new prize will end up being narrowly targeted to a certain sort of mathematics research. If so, it may have very significant effects on what kinds of mathematics get done. Based on the other prizes, it seems likely that the winners will be mostly prominent US academics, people already well-rewarded by the current academic star system. I don’t see any reason to believe that these kinds of financial awards will allow such mathematicians to do work they wouldn’t otherwise do, so the main argument for the prizes is that the money (and Academy Awards-style ceremonies) will help make them celebrities, and that this is a good thing. One can predict that public criticism from prominent US academics may be rather muted once the checks start coming.

Even if the Milner-Zuckerberg prize does end up focused on the best mathematics research, I still think the whole concept is problematic. The US today is increasingly dominated by a grotesque winner-take-all culture that values wealth and celebrity above all else. While mathematics research, like the rest of academia, has been affected as a star system has become increasingly part of the picture, this field has been somewhat immune to celebrity culture. While people typically think that what mathematicians do is perfectly respectable, they don’t understand much about it and aren’t especially interested. Milner and Zuckerberg want to change this by turning mathematicians into celebrities, but I don’t see any reason to believe this is going to lead to better mathematics.

Update: Here’s the statement from Milner about the planned mathematics prize:

Yuri Milner said: “Einstein said, Pure mathematics is the poetry of logical ideas. It is in this spirit that Mark and myself are announcing a new Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics. The work that the Prize recognizes could be the foundation for genetic engineering, quantum computing or Artificial Intelligence; but above all, for human knowledge itself.”

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65 Responses to Milner-Zuckerberg Prizes for Mathematics

  1. Jay says:

    Peter W,

    All I mean is I find hard to believe that “bad prizes could pervert the youth” is the reason of your sour opposition. Of course when younger we were impressed by Heisenberg, Dirac and Feynman, all Nobel Prize winners. Of course we were also impressed by Minsky, Penrose, Shannon, Turing, Von Neumann, all without any Nobel Prize (but I had to verify!). If you’re right that the subfield Milner choose to acknowledge goes in the wrong direction, we will forgot these laureates the same way so many Nobel Prize laureates are unknown (at least to me -I checked the list to verify the age distributions were differents for the two prizes). BTW, thx for the exchange of view.

  2. Jesper says:

    I’m a little late on this, but I want to respond to the “best and the brightest in physics today” (Deane, Bob Jones, Jay…).

    I think that declaring someone the best and brightest a field can only be done in retrospect. With the Nobel there is a requirement of experimental verification and with Math prices of proof, and thats great.

    I can imagine that before Copernicus there were some very “best and brightest” people around computing epicycles to astounding precision – but seen from a modern perspective they were people on the wrong track. They were wrong. It may be that string theory turns out to be a great and wonderful theory of “it all” and in that case these people deserve a mountain of praise – but if not, then they were not the best and brightest in physics at our time – because they were wrong (they may be praised for other things, math perhaps, or PR talent).

    This is what is wrong with the Milner Price. It may give praise to someone who is completely lost in the forest.

  3. Peter Woit says:

    I’m actually rather unconcerned about the youth, I was just addressing the main argument I always hear that more publicity for science is always good, even when it’s for bad ideas, because it will get young people interested in science. The reason for my “sour opposition” is quite simple, and the quote from me in the Guardian got it right. I just don’t think huge financial awards to people for over-hyped ideas that don’t work are a good idea. The Green-Schwarz award is a perfect example of the problem. Superstring unification really is a failed idea, so why reward it? Is that good for science?

  4. Jesper says:

    @ Jay

    “If you’re right that the subfield Milner choose to acknowledge goes in the wrong direction, we will forgot these laureates the same way so many Nobel Prize laureates are unknown”

    Difference: the Nobel laureates may be unknown, but they were right. I think its naive to think that such a big prize as Milners will not twist the research field(s) in some way – and since it is deliberately detached from experimental verification it may very well – judged in restrospect – twist the field(s) in a very negative way. Yes, we’ll just forget the Milner prize winners if they turn out to be wrong – but a lot of time and effort may be wasted before we or our grand^many -children are in a position to make the final judgement.

  5. Jon Orloff says:

    Is it possible that a key reason for these prizes and the way they are handed out is to promote the names of Mlner and Zuckerberg – to make a connection of their names to esoteric areas of science? Sort of like self-promoting groupies.

  6. Kavanna says:

    Peter is right. Prizes like this just concentrate attention and fame on dubious exemplars. Better is supporting institutions and rediscovering real standards of scientific progress.

    And science prizes, if we must have them, should either concentrate on ideas tested and proven in retrospect (like the Nobels); or just be given out in small amounts in a semi-random fashion, as proposed by Smolin and Essex.

  7. Sebastian Thaler says:


    You’re featured in Business Insider–as a “famous math professor”:

  8. Peter Woit says:

    Thanks Sebastian,
    Well at least so far the Milner-Zuckerberg math prizes have made one person “famous” in the media, that’s what they want, right?

  9. Chris Oakley says:


    I thought that ‐ at least according to Jacques Distler’s definition ‐ you are not an active researcher, and therefore raising your profile in the media is not what Milner and Zuckerberg intend. Still, it is some kind of compliment being passed over in a prize funded by someone famous for stealing someone else’s idea in a ceremony hosted by people who pretend to be somebody else for a living.

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  11. Edwin Pell says:

    Thank you Peter. You are right America is being feed the ubermensch view of the world. That is a few rich powerful people make it all happen everybody else is useless and unneeded. Let’s remember Hubbell started as the janitor went on to do fundamental work and was never was rich or famous.

  12. I wonder why Anderson has not openly spoken out against the prize.

  13. Peter Woit says:

    Curious Wavefunction,

    I suspect that at 90 years old, Anderson might feel he has better things to do with his time and energy than take up causes that will intensely annoy his colleagues (like criticizing the $15 million bounty they have personally collected in the past year or so).

  14. Nathalie says:

    The most important difference between Nobel Prizes in sciences and many other prizes is due to the process of evaluation of the nominees. In the case of Nobel Prizes the work of a potential candidate is scrutinized by several referees, a process which can take many years. Moreover, the Prize is not given to speculations, irrespectively of how spectacular they may be. Indeed, some speculations in the field of physics may turn out to be correct but most of them do end up in the “physical wastepaper basket” and don’t deserve the Prize. Better late than wrong!

    Some Physics Laureates may be unknown to us simply because their contributions fall outside our field of expertise.

  15. littlestar says:

    Hi , I have a suggestion for the Milner prizes:
    Experimental verification and empirical proof are fundamental things in physics , so the fundamental physics prize should be given primarily to physicists with innovative physics theories that have been experimentally verified and/or for important discoveries in physics , and a smaller prize could be given to work done in theoretical and mathematical physics , and string theorists ( among others) would be included in this smaller prize.
    A (Breakthrough) Prize in Mathematics could be useful if created , but it ought to be given for new creative proven and coherent work or theories in mathematics , and it would be good of these theories have applications in the rest of the exact sciences.

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